England Coast Path – Weston to Burnham-on-Sea

Weston's Big Wheel, taken from our hotel room window
Weston’s Big Wheel, taken from our hotel room window

With tonight’s hotel accommodation in Bridgwater booked, we had little option but to cover the distance from Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea before lunch. There is no way of crossing the River Parrett downstream (there’s no ferry) so the England Coast Path travels inland to Bridgwater. Our route would take us up the River Parrett this afternoon, then back to the coast on the opposite riverbank tomorrow.

When we’d rolled into town last night I was exhausted and too focused on reaching and booking into our hotel to notice my surroundings. This morning I opened the curtains of our Premier Inn room to be confronted with a superb, close-up view of a big wheel. Not that I’m a great lover of funfairs, but having this great monster of a ride right outside our window definitely reinforced the fact that we had arrived at the seaside proper!

It’s amazing how much more optimistic you feel after a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. Despite the little toe on my right foot now boasting three separate blisters and my legs feeling like I’d run a marathon, I was spiritually refreshed and ready to face another day’s hiking. We munched dry packets of oats (the golden syrup variety is really nice uncooked) and banana chips before setting off to find the nearest supermarket to stock up on lunch and evening supplies.

Life becomes simple when you have no choice to make about what to wear, what to eat, what to do, etc. This was the first time I’d ever backpacked and it was making me realise how simple life becomes when you don’t have to make choices about what to do that day, what to wear, what to eat, etc. My rucksack might feel heavy, but in reality it held very little. After just three days, I was enjoying the freedom of a lighter, simpler life … even if my feet weren’t.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
Looking back towards Weston-Super-Mare

Back on the promenade we were amused by a plaque on the toilet block, which read: ‘Send a message to a faraway friend, encourage them to build something wonderful: Utopian Town, Pond of Repose, Giant Arch, Tumbledown Shed, Room 102. That relief on the toilets is the undersea Atlantic cable that carried telegraph messages to the USA. It emerges at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland.’

It sounded a tad nonsensical but we later found out that it’s part of the Wrights & Sites project, which has developed 41 carefully worded signs around Weston to encourage people to engage with their immediate environment and ‘encourage the reader to think again about its specific location, to conduct an action or thought experiment.’

Before creating their messages, the artists conduct extensive research on an area, often walking for miles around a town and talking to local people. Their work is intended to ‘tap into different layers or strata of strata of a place, peeling back the surface to reveal hidden or obscured aspects of a location or situation‘.

It’s an interesting concept and it certainly works because it got Harri and me chuckling, talking about the toilet block’s history and wondering if transatlantic cables really had been associated with the seafront premises.

Back home, we checked and the Wikipedia entry for Weston states ‘In 1885, the first transatlantic telegraph cable of the Commercial Cable Company was brought ashore and the company started a long association with the town, ending in 1962. Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy, successfully transmitted radio signals across the Bristol Channel in the spring of 1897, from Penarth (near Cardiff) to Brean Down (just south west of Weston, on the other side of the River Axe).’
Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
Sand art on Weston’s beach

We’d barely made any progress before something else caught my eye… a huge Disneyesque sandcastle was peeping over the top of a fenced-off area. We couldn’t see very much of the sculpture as the whole exhibition was hidden behind those high barriers. It was a sad reminder of how different life is now than when I was a child. Back in the 70s, the sand sculptures at Weymouth were created for all children (and adults) to marvel at, no-one had to pay an entry charge to see them. Weston Sand Festival isn’t expensive – family tickets cost £10 – however, there must be plenty of families who are unable to afford even a tenner for an hour’s entertainment.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
The River Axe at low tide … many have risked their lives trying to wade across

Our first challenge of the day was crossing the River Axe. In its beach safety leaflet, Sedgemoor District Council warns ‘Do not attempt to cross the River Axe on foot from near Brean Down to Uphill’. And bearing in mind those individuals who tend to ignore official rules, it adds ‘Deep soft mud and very fast rising water have in the past proved fatal’.

Unfortunately, many do not heed these stern words. In July 2011, coastguards were called upon to free three people stuck in mud. Just two days later, two 22-year-old women got stuck in exactly the same place after trying to walk across the estuary.

As a self-professed hater of mud, I find it impossible to imagine what is going through these people’s minds when they start wading through the horrible thick slime. I assume they risk it because the rocky headland at Brean Down looks so near and they can’t (or won’t) accept they have to walk miles up the estuary and back again to reach it.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
The River Axe is one of Somerset’s natural ‘obstacles’

Burnham/Weston coastguards… if you’re reading, be assured you will never have to rescue me from the River Axe, not ever. Nothing on this planet that would induce me to leave the nice solid path through Walborough Local Nature Reserve and wade out onto those glistening mudflats.

Despite my mud-aversion, the area alongside the estuary is really rather nice. Standing high above the village of Uphill is the old church of St Nicholas, now partially ruined (the Victorians built a new church of the same name slightly away from the village centre) but still imposing. The Norman church dates from AD1080 and retains many of its original features. It’s usually open to the public during the summer (from Whitson) but alas, we didn’t have time to do the ‘uphill’ detour.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
Uphill’s old church looks down on the low-lying village

Another interesting thing about Uphill is that its name is something of a misnomer. The village lies below the level of the highest tides, making it vulnerable to flooding; the December 1981 floods, which devastated the Marine Lake at Weston, saw parts of Uphill under three feet of water. Low-lying Uphill has been reliant on sea defences since medieval times. During the Second World War, prisoners of war rebuilt the sluice and in 2003/4 the structure was again updated to meet modern standards of safety.

We followed the estuary for a while on the cycle path, enjoying the warm sunshine and pretty landscape. As I’ve said previously, I don’t object to these inland detours as long as they’re well signposted and scenic.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
Don’t be fooled… alpaca do not make good pets

At one point, the footpath took us onto a farm where they bred Suri alpaca for wool. We stopped to chat to the owner, who quickly put us off ever owning these animals. Despite their cute appearance (and their undisguised interest in us), they are apparently quite difficult to keep, bite if given the chance and require specialist shearers. That’s it then, we’re sticking to Plan A and keeping goats…

We returned to the coast at Brean village where the tide was out and the beach seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. We were disappointed to have missed Brean Down but it would have meant a long walk in the wrong direction and we just didn’t have time.

Unfortunately, while we’d been wandering around country lanes, the wind had been gathering might and it was proving extremely difficult to walk against the strong gusts. With no shelter from the elements, we walked the rest of the way from Weston-Super-Mare Burnham-on-Sea with our heads ducked and our hands in pockets.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
The beach stretches seven miles from Brean Down to Burnham-on-Sea

The highlight of this coastal stretch between Weston-Super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea is the wreck of the SS Nornan at Berrow. The Norwegian ship was one of many caught in the Bristol Channel during a howling south westerly gale in March 1897. She’d sought shelter in the lee of the Lundy Roads but found herself being swept towards Berrow mud flats by the driving wind.

The next morning, the ship was spotted just off Gore Sands. In gale force conditions, the Burnham lifeboat went to her aid and miraculously managed to rescue the crew of ten and their dog.

Weston-Super-Mare to Burnham-on-Sea
Its crew was saved but the ill-fated SS Nornan never sailed the seas again

We felt like we, too, were experiencing the best gale force conditions the Bristol Channel had to offer… it was proving incredibly tough to soldier on, walking as we were against the wind.

We rounded a bend and got our first glimpse of Burnham-on-Sea … not the day’s final destination but somewhere to rest a while and have a bite to eat.

England Coast Path: Severn Estuary to Bridgwater Bay by Harri Garrod Roberts is available in digital format from Amazon for £1.99.

For more pictures of the SS Nornan visit The Walker’s Wife on Pinterest.